Death Becomes Her
June 12, 2020
1 Hr., 44 Mins.
elf-optimization comes with a layer of darkness. We will all to varying degrees of dedication unavoidably practice it in some way or another — most commonly via monotonous forms of maintenance like face-washing and hair-cutting — until we die. Ostensibly we’re taking care of ourselves. But what exactly is the ratio of necessary to led-to-believe-is-necessary self-care in regard to a specific practice? How often are we
just keeping at bay certain characteristics socially ingrained in us as being unacceptable? I like the feeling of a refreshed face and know without a doubt
that to wash it is a good thing to do. At the same time I don't think I would carefully research and be prepared to spend a good amount of money on skincare products if I hadn’t internalized from a young age the idea that a blemished face should be conflated with unattractiveness. I don't want long hair because it gets in the way of things; whenever I've had it there comes a point where it's as bothersome as having long fingernails. I also know that I wouldn't hold up a picture of a famous person with nice hair during a barbershop appointment if I hadn’t in some way associated a particular look with some sort of hard-to-explain capital I wanted for myself.
Such pull-pullish thoughts sometimes flare up but don’t consume. It’s also safe to say that my experiences are neither universal nor as rife with social pressure in the way it can be for others. Take, for instance, the leads of Robert Zemeckis’ provocative, at-times excellent Death Becomes Her (1992), who obsess over self-optimization and maintenance so much that upkeep has turned into a fully fledged nightmare for both of them.
Death Becomes Her opens in 1978, at a Broadway show sure to close in about a week. It’s a gaudy musicalization of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth. In this version, the lead character, has-been movie star Alexandra Del Lago, has metamorphosed into someone more akin to an outsized personality like Cher. In the production, Del Lago, who is constantly surrounded by a fleet of gay male dancers, is played by Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep), also a flagging actress. Everyone in the audience thinks this play (and Ashton) stinks. Seats start to empty just after the opening number begins. Only one person attending, celebrated plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest Menville (Bruce Willis), seems to be having a good time. It’s because he’s gaga for Ashton.
This is exactly what was not supposed to happen. Menville has been brought to the show by his fiancée, mousy would-be writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn), who has known Ashton for most of her life as a best frenemy. (Ashton has a history of “stealing” Sharp’s love interests — she’s something of a real-life Jolene.) The night out doubles as a “test” proctored by Sharp, who has
apparently never dated a man who has passed it. Menville is evidently just another flunkee when a few scenes later, Ashton and Menville are seen walking down the aisle, Sharp looking on angrily from the venue's staircase.
Cut seven years into the future. Sharp is newly obese (Hawn wears an ill-judged fat suit) and about to be evicted from her cat-ridden apartment, which she ostensibly never leaves. Menville and Ashton seemingly remain happy. (At the end of this sequence, Sharp is taken to a psychiatric hospital, where she realizes that she has become unhealthily infatuated with Ashton and that something needs to change.) Cut another seven years into the future. Now Menville and Ashton are on the verge of getting divorced. Apparently the latter has totally emasculated the former. Now Menville professionally gussies up corpses for open-casket funerals, and has become an alcoholic. Sharp, currently thin and glamorously made up wherever she goes, has written a best-selling self-help book-slash-autobiography and has morphed into a pop-literary celebrity. The TL;DR for the book is that if you are stringent enough about your dieting and exercising routines, you will be happy like her.
Ashton has for years now been fixated on staving off the aging process. A little into the movie she tries to get another treatment before the recovery period for the last one is up. Sharp, who is still apoplectic but better able to control her anger at the mere mentioning of Ashton's name, is in the meantime secretly plotting to win Menville back. (Temporarily she will.) Around the same time, Ashton hears about a new treatment framed as a sort of endgame to her self-optimization addiction. The treatment, we learn, is a top-secret potion of sorts that, according to its mysterious, slinky seller — the 30-something-looking but actually 71-year-old Lisle von Rhoman (a great Isabella Rossellini) — will stop “the aging process dead in its tracks and force it into retreat.” Ashton drinks up. The crystalline vial holding the potion gleams underneath her pedicured fingernails.
There are a couple of twists in Death Becomes Her. One is that Sharp looks so good these days because she, too, has downed Rhoman’s concoction. (Diet and exercise were false advertising.) The other is that the mixture stops the aging process dead in its tracks and forces it into retreat because it turns its consumer, essentially, into a living corpse. It's really their body and soul stopping dead in their tracks. When Rhoman enigmatically cautions Ashton to make sure to take care of her body after downing the sparkly solution, what she means to say is that if, say, Ashton were to fall down a flight of stairs, she would neither die nor conventionally heal. Her limbs would turn all loosey goosey and she wouldn't be able to do much about it. And if she were to want to drive away an inescapable corpse-white pallor, she would have to spray paint herself with something found not at a drugstore but Sherwin Williams, because when sprayed on, that stuff sticks to a cadaver's skin better than any MAC concealer.
eath Becomes Her is at its best around its middle act — specifically when Ashton and Sharp have realized they’re both indestructible and as such their sparring can be cathartic and physically (rather than purely psychologically and emotionally) violent. (During a showdown at Ashton’s mansion, the latter, who has found out about Sharp’s Menville-targeting seduction scheme, blows out her opponent’s torso
with a shotgun, leaving her with a donut middle; then the two start to whack each other’s limbs with shovels, their parts increasingly close to being as free as a sky dancer's.)
Here, Streep’s and Hawn’s engagingly catty performances are most feral. The notion of self-optimization being in many ways more horrific and exhaustingly Sisyphean than actually beneficial is sharpest. And the special effects, which are aside from the movie’s camp appeal its most famous attribute, become another character trying to steal the show. It has often been said that in their films together, Ginger Rogers did what Fred Astaire did only backward and in high heels. There is a funny moment in Death Becomes Her where Ashton, who has broken her neck so severely that she can look down at her butt, is literally walking backward and in high heels.
By way of special effects Death Becomes Her is a masterpiece. Same compliment can be applied to the acting, which finds its women leads making a good case that in another world they could easily have done what Joan Collins and Linda Evans did for years on Dynasty (1981-1989). The critic Pauline Kael once said that after watching Meryl Streep in something you might remember all the acting she was doing with her face but never with her body. In Death Becomes Her, Kael's conclusion doesn't stand tall: Streep is unequivocally an adept physical comedienne or is at least persuasively imitating one. She memorably shimmies around, almost snarling with her body, regardless of if special effects are doing numbers on her form. When she's meanest, she really relishes it, accentuating the sting of her verbal venom with methodical movement. Ashton is more a textbook villainess — a distant relative of Snow White's conceited queen — than an anti-heroine, and something I like about the movie is that we're not necessarily meant to sympathize with her. We just delight in her broadly written wickedness.
Hawn is terrific and just as fervent as Streep, though screenwriters Martin Donovan and David Koepp switch up her motivations so jarringly that Sharp doesn’t have a real arc. She's mostly a personality that won’t stop dividing. I think that when used right Willis is a whiz comedy performer; in Death Becomes Her, he’s miscast. Willis is effective, but the movie needed someone better at conveying comedic hysteria (which Menville especially gets to when he realizes that these frenemies are immortal and want him to drink Lisle's potion so he can do their makeup for the rest of time). It needed someone who has limbs that can suddenly seem made of putty. I kept picturing Cary Grant in 1938’s Bringing Up Baby, specifically in the scenes where he’s running around, amped up, in a fuzzy pink nightgown and shrieking things like "I just went gay all of the sudden!," or Tim Curry in the parts of Clue (1985) where he's running around the mansion in which the film is set with boundless energy.
eath Becomes Her is an entertaining movie, but it doesn’t puncture like it should. The biggest flaw of the movie, which is pretty fun, is that it doesn’t meaningfully probe the dark reasons why self-optimization is something to obsess over in the first place. It’s a satire with trimmed claws. Self-optimization-as-nightmare is a conceit used in plenty of films, and well — ambitious projects Seconds
(1966), Brazil (1985), and Safe (1995) among them. They got to or got close to the root, however fleetingly, of why we are so compelled to self-optimize, and why its trappings can feel suddenly frightening, seemingly inescapable, when you think hard enough about them or give too much credence to them. Death Becomes Her hellaciously acknowledges the obvious — that the pressure to appear fresh and ageless is much heavier on women (just one characteristic of many contradicting pressures to live up to), in itself predominantly based in a capitalist ploy for more spending. The movie additionally gets pretty right how even after we've made a huge gain in the self-optimization process, it's more than likely that it won't feel like enough.
But the very real horrors of Death Becomes Her are mostly rendered thinly explored bases to spring spectacle-oriented black comedy off of. In Death Becomes Her, Ashton and Sharp are above all characterized as mean-spirited women who want to look good, aging nightmares incarnate — a character type that might be more darkly funny in a film with a different subject matter and where they are not the leads. The movie mostly delights as a body-horror comedy. It has campy humor for miles. (“Do you remember where we parked the car?” a decapitated Sharp deadpans to Ashton at the end of the movie, after they’ve both fallen down a flight of stairs and their bodies have somehow shattered like China plates.) But that the feature doesn't really engage with the meaningful whys underneath the motivations of its characters takes a lot of the bite away from what can in moments be a biting movie. B+